Death Comes for the Archbishop is my favorite book written by Willa Cather so rereading it for my Classics Club challenge was a pleasure. It’s such a beautifully written book. It is an historical fiction, based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who served as the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and of his friend, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf.
From the publisher:
There is something epic–and almost mythic–about this sparsely beautiful novel by Willa Cather, although the story it tells is that of a single human life, lived simply in the silence of the desert. In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows–gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Out of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.
The character of Father Latour was of a gentle, caring, intelligent and introverted man. This man’s personality was in stark contrast with the rugged western landscapes and the “wildness” of the west at that time, but he showed courage, perseverance, and kindness toward all through the experiences of his life.
But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like a very few. To man’s wisdom it would have seemed that a priest with Father Latour’s exceptional qualities would have been better placed in some part of the world where scholarship, a handsome person, and delicate perceptions all have their effect; and that a man of much rougher type would have served God well enough as the first Bishop of New Mexico. Doubtless Bishop Latour’s successors would be men of a different fibre. But God had his reasons, Father Joseph devoutly believed. Perhaps it pleased Him to grace the beginning of a new era and a vast new diocese by a fine personality. And perhaps, after all, something would remain through the years to come: some ideal, or memory, or legend.
The stories of the Archbishop’s interactions with the Mexican and Indian peoples and their cultures were poignantly and honestly told. The political problems of both cultures with the American government were complex, but reflecting towards the end of his life, the Bishop said, “My son, I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.”
Cather’s descriptions of New Mexico are exquisite. She uses her words as if a painter and the visions she creates in our minds are full of color and emotion.
“The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”
I do love this work of art and the artistry of Willa Cather. Reading this book fills me with sunshine and deep emotion. I am in awe of her mastery of language.
“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”